The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


American Sniper

American Sniper announces its intentions from the very first scene. Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is atop a building in Iraq, his sniper rifle trained on a young boy who has just been handed a grenade. Should he pull the trigger? On one hand, this is just a kid. On the other, he's carrying something that could be used to kill American soldiers. Kyle's choice is not revealed until later in the film, but you know right off the bat that director Clint Eastwood wants to explore the moral ambiguities of killing someone from afar.

Based on the best-selling autobiography of the same name, American Sniper is the story of Kyle, who is considered to be the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, with 160 confirmed kills. We learn early on that Kyle was brought up in a staunchly conservative, patriotic home. As an adult, he's the kind of guy who enjoys a cold beer and would need to have his gun pried from his cold dead hand. He's got a wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), and children who mean the world to him. Whatever he does, whether it's commit to his family or to his country, he does it unwaveringly.

The film follows Kyle through his four tours of duty in a war that simultaneously had few ambiguities and many. Determined to snuff out terrorists, he is gung ho about the mission. The minute details, however, are harder to discern. Every time he gets a potential target in his scope, Kyle has to decide whether or not to pull the trigger. He has the power to end a life with the flick of his finger, and sometimes the people whose fates are unknowingly under his control are not necessarily your garden variety terrorists. American Sniper cuts back and forth between Kyle serving his country and re-adapting to life back at home, with a parallel drawn between the kid in his sights and his own child. If he shoots this boy, the film asks, even if under the idea that he's stopping a potential act of terrorism, does the father in him lose a part of his soul?

American Sniper works as a portrait of a man who served the United States in combat multiple times. It shows the bravery he, and others just like him, displayed in going off to fight a war that was as dangerous as it was questionable. But under the surface is a more nuanced psychological story. The difference between a sniper and a regular combat soldier is that a sniper doesn't come face-to-face with his enemy. He acts from a remove, with the enemy often unaware of his presence. This requires an extra layer of ethics, because if you pull the trigger on the wrong person, it's a life snuffed out for no reason. American Sniper, in one literal heart-pounding scene after another, shows Kyle struggling (often under intense time pressure) to make big decisions about who lives and who dies. And then it shows the effects of these decisions on the average man who returns home and tries to resume a normal life.

Bradley Cooper does an amazing transformation in this film. Bulked up significantly and talking in a thick, no-nonsense Texas accent, he disappears into character. Just as importantly, he makes clear the kind of mindset Kyle certainly must have adopted in order to become such a lethal sniper. A cognitive separation has to take place, and Cooper – doing work on par with his performance in Silver Linings Playbook - continually explores how the character tries to maintain that without losing his self-identity in peacetime completely. The actor allows you to sense the internal struggle taking place, especially in the later scenes, where Kyle tries to channel his own demons into something positive by helping post-traumatic vets back home.

Sienna Miller is also outstanding as Kyle's wife, who tries to hold things together while her man repeatedly returns to one of the most dangerous places in the world. We've seen the “suffering military wife” onscreen many times before, yet Miller brings such raw emotion to the role that it feels new.

Anyone familiar with Chris Kyle's story knows that it has a tragic, weirdly ironic end. American Sniper doesn't explore that hard enough, but then again, there are perfectly understandable reasons why it can't. No one knows for sure why events transpired the way they did. Nonetheless, Eastwood - directing in typically clean and efficient fashion – makes the point that our soldiers come home with more weight on their shoulders than you and I could ever imagine. Once you've accepted responsibility for killing someone, justified or not, you are changed irreparably. More than that, you are scarred. Chris Kyle killed at least 160 people. He did it in the name of protecting the country he loved from terrorism. He paid a price for that. Often unbearably tense and always psychologically and emotionally captivating, American Sniper isn't interested in patriotism for patriotism's sake; it's interested in the cost of patriotism for those most invested in defending the right to have it.

( out of four)

American Sniper is rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references. The running time is 2 hours and 12 minutes.

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